Published  20/12/2006

Tales of two cities: Berlin, Dresden

Tales of two cities: Berlin, Dresden

These are stirring times for architecture 'watchers' in Germany's two famous cities; Berlin, the capital, and Dresden, culture capital of the south-east. The re-opening of the neo-Baroque and now restored Bode Museum in Berlin, sitting on its island and commanding like a prow the curve of the river Spree, required a restoration of well over £100 million to return it to its pre-World War II primary status. British architect David Chipperfield was entrusted with the overall master plan for the 'Museum Insel' project and takes a long view overall, sensibly indicating that the fulfilment of his objectives may take another 40 to 45 years.

One of the problems for the core museum buildings here is that the division of Berlin into occupied zones in 1945 left the area split between East and West. As early as 1841, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV designated the site to be 'an area dedicated to art and the knowledge of antiquity' ('der kunst und der alterturmswissenschaft gewihten bezirk'). The great domed Baroque edifice was destroyed by wartime bombing and then, minus items wisely spirited away by the East German authorities, left to fester and decay. Now, the 1,700 sculptures collected by Wilhelm von Bode for the honour of Prussia have been restituted, a major curatorial achievement in itself. There are Byzantine and Baroque masterworks, ornate porticoes from Venetian palaces and 15th-century northern European works have been reassembled. An interesting case of restitution is that of the 15th-century painting of a Madonna and child by von Leyden, a reunited couple, in fact: the 'Madonna' had remained in what was left of the Bode Museum under East German supervision, while the 'child' ended up displayed in West Berlin. In the Bode itself, space is generous for each exhibit within some 60 great galleries. 

The Bode museum was re-opened in mid-October 2006, as part of Berlin's ambition to rival Paris. It is particularly fortuitous that on Berlin's museum island, the Bode, the National Gallery and the Pergamon Museum form, as always intended, an identifiable group rather than being a dispersed collection of museums. A much more vexing question sadly surrounds plans for Berlin's new central station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof) in the capital - which replaces the devastated former Anhalter Bahnhof, a six-platform nucleus for a 12-platform requirement in early 20th-century Berlin. The new station, as befits a capital city, was intended to resolve such dilemmas in time for the Football World Cup in June 2006, which it didn't, even though it was operable by then. However, 70-year-old architect Meinhard von Gerkan's new building, which took eight years to construct at a cost of 700 million euros, is riven by late disputes. Deutsche Bahn, the client, had made two major changes to von Gerkan's design. The first was to slice up to 100 metres off the glass and steel roof covering the tracks in the 320 metre-long, symmetrical structure. (As a result, it is symmetrical no more.) The second blow was the commissioning of a flat metal ceiling by another architect, replacing von Gerkan's vaulted ceiling with its acknowledgement of historic precedent in Berlin. In its original form, this station would, in von Gerkan's mind, have provided a fitting addition to Berlin's new skyline and also a memorial to him. This cannot now quite fit the bill of a highly respected architect. As architect of Berlin's famous Tegel Airport (1974), he can hardly walk away with the latter as his memorial in the 21st century. For all concerned, the story of the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof represents a tragic debacle. 

Travel across Germany to Dresden (by rail if time permits, although there is not much in it) and there one finds a reconstituted masterpiece in the form of the new central station. This has been rebuilt from the ruins of massive wartime bombing, and has just been re-opened with (as the clever Audi advertisement showing Stuttgart's new museum used to emphasise in the l980s), a 'Britische architekt'. Yes, another triumph for - guess who - Norman Foster. This building is not purely a triumph of design, per se (although that is evident in abundance), but also of negotiation and, therefore, client and community satisfaction and management. A particular skill of Foster's firm, Foster + Partners, has been to establish the important basis for agreement on the brief before any conflict can rise. Looking at the context of Dresden city, and remembering that Foster pulled off the Reichstag project in Berlin with great acclaim, Dresden seems to have had confidence in Foster's ability to reconcile all problems with no community backlash. Perhaps the restoration of the bombed cathedral, the Frauenkirche, helped the people of Dresden in their magnanimity. Above everything, given the example of the Reichstag, they simply wanted the best for their city, once known as 'the Florence of the Elbe'. 

Foster achieved a solution with the restored station, which not only provided a new technological solution for the roof rebuild (which they were asked to do alone, initially) by using a translucent skin of coated glass fibre inserted over the original steel arches above the platforms, but also a clear restoration of the original clock towers, an important identifying feature of the entry façade. As the entrance has been restored in such a dedicated reconstruction, Foster's achievement internally with the main hall is all the more impressive and cathedral-like. This is because of the successful manipulation of the daylight factor via the roof. Electrical costs and infrastructure are dramatically lower than expected. What is impressive is the extent to which Foster reaches not for the grand, extrovert architectural gesture (such as the Swiss-Re tower or 'Gherkin' in the City of London), but for nothing less than a sublime realisation of a central, public, functional space. Even the new glass cupola over the front entrance is a fulfilment of the brief, working on a seasonal basis to handle temperature variations. This means that the building naturally ventilates. It is possible to see Foster's masterpiece here in Dresden as an act of reconciliation between two European nations, but it is not too remote or arcane to claim that the work is also a significant act of redemption for the tragedy of the recent past. Dresden's great move was to be self-confident enough to go to Foster. The result has to be a great accolade to all involved.

Michael Spens

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